I guess the best place to start is at the start line......
|Photo: The Gazette|
Pre-race feelings were a mix of excitement, nerves and curiousity. I was happy with my training plan, feeling like I had prepared well, was hoping to do well, yet I didn't know what that would be. My goal time was 5 hours, 30 minutes. I would have been a little disappointed if I missed that. And so 772 runners began as the gun went off along the first 1 1/2 miles or so on pavement. I was thinking the first stretch along Manitou Ave before Ruxton was a place to kind of get a good start - it barely climbs at all and I didn't want to be too far back in the pack, to avoid being too slowed once we entered the single track trail on "the W's".
From the roundabout on Manitou as we started going up Ruxton - the true climbing begins. By the time we get to the Cog Railway it is clear that the mountain means business. Shortly after the Cog we go past Hydro street and enter the steepest part of the course. It's not too long, but it is steep, many runners walk it. I have done this part of the course many times and although I can walk it just about as fast as I can slow jog it - I commited to
run slow jog it. It's really a mental thing as I have found in training runs that the more I walk down below, the more I resort to walking further up, especially in sections that I can and should be running.
Then the W's begin, 13 switchbacks of varying lengths, that if a runner thinks the Hydro Street stretch was really not that bad - this part of the trail will change your mind. I have found in training that if I can run through them without walking (aside from a few rock step ups) - then I can usually run to Barr Camp. On race day, I was succesful in running up the W's and got to the top of them just under 40 minutes. That was one of my pre-race goals.
So far I was feeling good, not comfortable by any means but certainly confident that because I had run so far without too much suffering, I should be able to continue forward quite well. Throughout the W's and beyond, the stream of runners was beginning to thin out. No stopping and starting due to overcrowding like there was in the Ascent race last year - where admittedly there is at least another 1000 more runners doing it.
After the top of the W's I settled in and my focus during this stretch was to maintain a consistent effort, balancing the steeper climbs with a steady effort that matched the "flatter" sections above "No Name Creek". In fact, the flatter sections I was able to stretch out a little and took advantage of being able to increase the pace, while maintaining that effort.
The miles were going by, I stopped at each aid station for quick bites and water bottle refills. Legs were feeling good, head was in the game and I was making progress. I had commited before starting the race to not look up at the Summit. It's visible from the trail in several places - each time I have looked up before it seems so far away, so high and out of reach and honestly depressing. I was determined that I needed to be mentally focused this day. That meant not looking up, that meant running when I should be and moving forward always.
Barr Camp is a great place, almost like an Oasis in that it is in the middle of nowhere, yet when you are there it is the coolest thing that ever could be there. Its cute, quaint and quiet - but on race day it transforms into an aid station, full of excited and cheering volunteers who load you up with food and fluids, but fill you up with encouragement - for the journey up and just as much for the journey back down. I needed both.
Another pre-race goal was met as I got to Barr Camp just under 1:45. According to the Skyrunner Pacing Calculator this was tracking me for a 3:27 (or thereabouts) Ascent time. A quick refill of fluids, a mental check and I was feeling decent and still confident - then off again.
The stretch between Barr Camp and A-Frame I found in training runs to be one of the most testing stretches of the trail. Approx 2 1/2 miles with approx 1800 feet of gain. Aside from the stretch just below the Summit known as the "16 Golden Stairs" - this part of the course is the most rockiest. Simply put - it's tough and the part of the course where I struggle the most with mentally and physically. This was going to be a challenge.
The mindset going into it is: just keep moving. You can run some of it. You should definitely be walking some of it just to keep the energy levels in check. It's the part of the race course that is the longest between aid stations, so it is important to fuel up at Barr Camp. My pre-race plan was to add 2 gels to my water bottle at Barr Camp. (I struggle to get them down if they are not mixed w/ water). I was planning on getting some food in my system there also. For some reason I didn't. That might have been a factor later.
By the time I realized I hadn't eaten anything there I was already a 1/4 mile up the trail - too late. I was hopeful though that the 2 gels in the water bottle would carry me through to A-Frame. Pressing on I was commited to run as much as I could. By this time there were more walkers than runners. A couple of guys just ahead of me were running about as much as I was though - so I could keep my eye on them and that helped.
Eventually I made it to the A-Frame aid station - where new to this year's race was a timing station to record chip times - 2:28:48 for me. That was about 5 minutes faster than my last training run up to that point - so with a new best time so far, one that was tracking for a 3:29 Summit - I was encouraged. I ate some food. I was actually feeling confident still because I had done several training runs from the Summit down to this point and back up and was feeling confident that I could do this stretch in an hour or less.
I left the aid station and took a step up on a rock and something happened to me that I don't ever recall happening before. For a split second, on my left upper calf, I felt a burning surge of pain, like a spasm, felt like being jabbed with a hot knife, but only for a moment. I had no idea what it was, it hurt and then it was gone. I pressed on and tried to not think about it.
Above treeline the wind picked up, several gusts from the North, fortunately they seemed only noticeable in the mile above treeline. I put my head down and kept running as much as I could, walking when I had to, passing more people, making my way closer to the Summit.
|Photo: The Gazette|
About a 1/2 mile above treeline, the eventual race winner, Kilian Jornet came surging past looking very strong. About 5 to 6 minutes later, local runner Alex Nichols came through. Was nice to see a local guy doing well against a top field of National and International runners - he held on to second place.
As for me - as runners started to pass me I was keeping a mental count, wanted to know where I was in the race. As I went further up the trail I got more frustrated though. It wasn't the other runners coming down, or the other runners I was gradually passing on the way up - it was that I was walking sections that I had trained on that I had taken note that were runnable. Instead, I was walking them.
On top of that mental battle I was getting into - the calf spasms kept coming and going. I had no predictor of when they would come and none seemed any different than the other - they would just be a moment of hurt - I yelled out each time they hit me. By the time I got to the Cirque Aid Station I committed to getting a lot more fluids down and realized that a 3:30 Summit wasn't likely. This was my mentally lowest point of the race.
I'm a stubborn person though, I had trained for this race - a lot -and I didn't want that to go to waste. So, leaving the Aid Station I kept moving forward, trying to run as much as possible and walk as hard as I could when I was reduced to walking.
Just above the Cirque sign - a place that makes me weak in the knees at the thought of falling over the edge - I met a guy that I have been waiting to meet for a long time. I had previously thought I would have met him already before now, maybe at the beginning of another race, or in a parking lot of a trail. So, I wasn't really expecting or planning on meeting George 12 miles in to a marathon that at that stage of it was about 13 1/2 thousand feet above sea level. He was on his way back down (eventual 3rd place Master finisher = Awesome!) and as he came by I recognized him - and yelled out "Hi George, I'm Craig and I'll see you at the finish". A few moments later I heard him yell back "Go Knuckledragger!!!"
Good encouragement - at least for a few moments for me - I pressed on. More and more people were coming back down now. By this time I had given up and lost count of them. As I got to the 16 Golden Stairs the jamming of the trail with runners coming and going started. I was curious before the race as to how much of this would happen. Downhill runners get the right of way - so to let them past - uphill runners pull to the side of the trail and often stop.
More frustration on top of that was now both calves were doing the spasm thing. Not having ever experienced that before I started to wonder how much worse that it would get. I was also ready to start the descent and as I neared the Summit and the cheering, supportive crowd and race crew spurred me on - helping run some more.
Summited in a chip time of 3:32:27. 17 minutes better than last year's Ascent which is good, but about 5 minutes slower than I really wanted and thought I should be. Looking at the race results and split times - it looks like I was in 101st place at the Summit. I stopped there, added my last gel to the water bottle, drank a few cups and ate as much as I could in a hurry. I needed to get going but fortunately had the presence of mind to eat and drink - knowing in essence that I was about to begin running the hardest part of the hardest race of my life.
Sure, getting up to the Summit and by doing so: gaining 7800 or so feet over 13 miles is an incredibly difficult thing to do. But then turning around, hurting and exhausted and going down again - as fast as possible - this part of the race was at least as difficult as the first half. Plus, if I wanted to beat my goal time of 5 1/2 hours - I was already behind schedule.
I took off, now I was facing the runners coming up, there were runners in front of me going down also. Add to that, we were in the 16 Golden Stairs where the trail is very narrow, rocky and technical. In training for this approx 1/3 of a mile stretch I have never been able to get through it fast and although I didn't keep track of time on race day through there - I know I went down faster than ever before, to the point of almost losing control - I didn't, but I was flying. I pushed hard and according to the race day splits - only 22 people went faster than me between the Summit and A Frame on the way down.
I got to A-Frame and I realized I had probably pushed too hard. That same rock on the way up that I had stepped up on and my calf had spasmed - did it to me on the way back, causing my leg to buckle a little but I stayed upright. I grabbed a quick drink and something to eat at the aid station there and kept moving.
By this time almost all of the uphill runners were now at or above treeline. I had passed a bunch of people in the first 3 miles but they were thinning out, so by the time I was back in the trees on the trail - it seemed like no-one was on the trail. I would run for what seemed like forever without seeing anyone. Suddenly a runner going down would pop up in front of me, I would pass him and then was instantly alone again.
The next difficult phase began for me here - my stomach began to hurt. I stopped to try to pee to see if that would help. I couldn't, so I stretched over to touch my toes - that didn't help much either. So I kept moving but my pace was slowing - thought I was going really slow but would still be passing people going slower than me. That encouraged me - not that someone was going slower - but that I was going fast enough to pass people.
A trip and a stumble over a rock or root that swung me off the trail onto a large boulder woke me up - I didn't fall completely over and it really didn't hurt me too much, just twisted me around and stretched my lower back. I stopped again to catch my breath, bending over again to try stretch the back out, reminded myself that I needed to stay focused - and pressed on.
Made it back to Barr Camp where I could now describe my condition as at best: "wobbly", in reality: "bloody awful". I held on to the Aid Station table, eating and drinking I felt like I was about to throw up. Teresa, one of the Barr Camp caretakers asked me if I was okay and I said that I just needed to burp, or throw up. She said either of them is fine if it makes you feel better. I burped. It did feel better and my stomach wasn't much of an issue the rest of the way.
About 6 miles to go, the flat sections on the way up now were on the way back and they were uphill. They were tough, my legs were tired but each time I pressed forward - it was hard, but I felt better just doing a very slow jog than a walk up them and I knew that after a climb or flat section was a downhill. Plus, I was still catching up to and passing people.
I had made a point to stop looking at my watch after the Summit, I knew that a 5:30 finish time was requiring an overall average pace of 12:30 miles. At Barr Camp I was still above 14 minute average. Mental math didn't work at all for me there in my state of mind - all I could figure out was that I needed to press to meet the goal.
With rapidly tiring legs, gradually passing the signs indicating how far to go, getting a little warmer the lower down the trail I went, downhill runners popping up seemingly out of nowhere - passing them and wondering if they would then pass me back - but they didn't.
Finally, the top of the W's and about 2 1/2 miles to go. Gravity: please help me now. Brain: stay alert. Legs: don't give out on me yet. Finish line: where are you?
There's an aid station at what is known as the 12th "W" - right up along side the Incline. These volunteers haul the aid up there. Other volunteers pack in supplies to the other aid stations. Literally hundreds of wonderful people support us crazy runners achieve crazy dreams of running up and down the mountain. They are out there for hours, some are there for twice as long as we are on the trail - these volunteers are awesome. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I had a brief conversation with the ones at that aid station on the W's. A few steps before it is a rock step down. As I stepped down my calf went nuts again and instantly I was on the ground, almost at the foot of the aid table. I was wearing gloves though (thanks again GZ for that recommendation after my last big tumble on the trail). No real damage, A slight scrape on my elbow and knees, plus a decent trail rash on my hip that I found later.
I crashed right in front of the volunteers. Wonderful. Immediately they were asking if I was okay, if I needed water to wash anything off. I managed to say something like "unless you see a bone sticking out, I'm gonna finish". So, I picked myself up and ran. I was so tired, so ready to be done. I made my way down through the W's - trying to be careful with the rock hopping sections, yet still trying to push as hard as possible, passing still more people, not looking at my watch for fear of falling or being depressed that I would miss the 5:30 goal.
Finally, the last W. I passed 2 more guys right there, one I recognized as someone that is in my age group, that always beats me in races - was this my time to finally beat him? I wanted it. He is faster than me, so I was expecting him to just latch on a few steps behind and then dust me at the finish. But I had a new purpose - to beat him.
I pushed harder and finally hit the paved road with just over a mile to go. Now was the steepest section. I have read the Course description so many times and remembered this part how it says something like "by now your legs are shot - just let them go, you are almost done". So, on the steepest part of the course I was pushing as hard as I could - couldn't help but briefly think how much it would hurt in the days after (it does). But I wanted to stay ahead of the 2 guys I just passed so I knew I needed to just go.
Past the Cog, 3/4 miles to go and people started populating the sidewalks - they didn't know me but they were cheering as though they did. As I passed them I would listen to when they would start cheering for the next person behind me. Was someone right behind me? I couldn't tell.
With a 1/3 mile to go to the finish line, the crowds were full and they didn't stop cheering - amazing - but, I still didn't know if there was someone right behind me so I pushed even harder. Finally, the last corner came up and with just a few steps left I was almost done.
With a dizzying head, legs throbbing, chest pounding and heart racing - I crossed the finish line in 5:19:05
No more than 3 steps after crossing the finish line I went straight down onto a chair and watched the world start spinning around me. This is what it feels like to be truly exhausted. It felt AWESOME.
As I was sitting there in the chair, literally dazed as the world was spinning, trying to catch my breath and get to grips with what I had just done without breaking in to tears - the guy I thought was right behind me finished over 30 seconds behind me. Victory.
I looked at my watch - descent was 1:46:33 Checking results later: was 26th fastest descent on the day. I passed almost 50 runners on the downhill to finish in 52nd place (739 finishers). The disappointment I had at the Summit was gone - I had just run the best race of my life.